Christian Ethics and the "Holocaust"

It has been suggested that the "Holocaust," or Shoah—Hebrew שׁואה, for "ruinous devastation" in the wake of some horrible event, preferable by far to the cultic implications of the Greek ὁλόκαυστον, "whole burnt offering"—should be a central theological and moral datum in the wake of its happening. And, for generations, we have tried to do something like that. To do theology and ethics in the wake of this particular ruinous devastation, however we accommodate it.

With Judaism being thematic to this year's Barth conference at PTS, I've been reading the intersectional work I can find, including some pieces that have been on my list for quite a while. Of recent vintage, that includes the work of Mark Lindsay, whose Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth's Theology of Israel is focused on this theme. Barth, "antisemitism," and the Shoah might be a better listing, and it's certainly not a bad goal to figure out what a Barthian has to work with that's of any real use for redeeming ourselves from our own horrible failures in this area. Still, before one gets to Barth, there are questions about the area that have to be answered.

Broader Issues

Now, I put "Holocaust" in quotes above because it's the wrong word, but we commonly use it. "Shoah" may not be the right word for every consideration of the set of atrocities in question, but when we're talking about the Jewish question rather than the gypsy or homosexual or any other question, it is appropriate. (The real solution to these questions of the other, of course, is not to make the other the problem, but to problematize the self. The "Jewish question" is really only an aspect of the "European question," the "Christian question," which has become the "American question" too. The true moral question is always about myself and ourselves. But I'll get to that.)

I put "antisemitism" in quotes for a slightly different reason: it's the right word, but we commonly misuse it. If you really want to discuss antisemitism, especially if we're going to talk Christian ethics, you need to include Islam as well as Judaism, Muslims as well as Jews. That begins to be a dialogue worth having in the US, rather than a mere accusation of bias against Jews—which, in the political climate that has developed over the last half-century in this country, has become a lesser version of the more recent accusation of a bias against Christians. It has become a smokescreen for dominant behavior, rationalized by the exceptions to the norm. Reactions against that dominant behavior get swept up along with the genuine instances, all submerged together into the category of oppression and trumpeted by "victims" who get to use the real victims as justification for eliminating their opposition as hateful.

Antisemitism as a Racism

We made "antisemite" into a label for "bad people," to describe a subset of "people who hate," like all variations of the word "racist." And when we did that, we committed ourselves to only treating a specific set of symptoms, rather than fighting the disease itself. We decided to quarantine what were to us the obvious cases, the "real" outbreaks of antisemitism, and to "fight" the disease by telling people not to contract it. We decided to use fear as though it were medicine. With that stigma firmly in place, we also committed ourselves to hiding our own symptoms whenever possible, to never seeking any thorough course of treatment, while the disease progressed to the point that it could not be cured without killing the patient.

"Good whites" are just racists who can pass as clean in polite society. We have learned the behaviors of passing, the double consciousness, the fear of being discovered, the vicious defense of our acceptable identity whenever it may be threatened, the deflection of suspicion. We measure ourselves by our "good" behaviors towards the class in question. But we have the disease, even if we have never allowed it to develop into an identity. That may even be worse, as we have built our identity no less thoroughly around it. Heresy is the nucleus of every one of our orthodoxies. And in the children of the children of the children of this strategy, the socially acceptable symptoms have crept into our "righteous" identity and been rationalized as healthy.

Recentering Ourselves

How did it happen? We did exactly what we were supposed to do, but we did it wrong. We made the "Holocaust" a central theological and moral datum, and set out never to do exactly that thing. We set out to eradicate the symptom by every means possible—except the right one, which is identifying and then bracketing the symptom, once we have recognized it correctly as a diagnostic indicator, so that we could focus on treating the disease.

Instead, we chose to cling to power and its traditions by any means necessary. We chose to emphasize asymptomatic behavior, which is not a bad thing—but we did it in order to allow the carriers of the disease to keep living in the style to which they have become accustomed. Christian liberals are not the friends of Judaism and Jewish people—and certainly of Islam and Muslim people!—because of our liberalism, any more than white liberals are the friends of people of color because of our liberalism. We are as much an obstacle to the necessary future, because we still seek to enable ourselves by our behavior toward others. It may be more generally sociable behavior than the anti-social behaviors we usually label "antisemitism" or "racism," but that does not make it what it ought to be.

In the context of the Shoah, it must be said that we still wish to shelter in our theology a supersessionist and antisemitic undercurrent which, at our best, we deny in our ethics. It is a deep corruption, and it hides in doctrines that do not look to us to be part of the problem. Sin is always like this—it is as much a part of our best systems as our worst violations. Even where it does not mention the other, it has its roots planted firmly in our own self-assertions. A Barthian—especially a Barthian!—must say as much, and then deal with it.

We have to deal with this to do theology and ethics today, even though potential cures may well look like killing the patient, because of how invasive the disease is. Where it is not that radical, workable cures will still certainly look like heresy in places. We hold precious many tainted things. This is not to say that we should pursue heresy or death, by any means! But ultimately, the question cannot be how to save the history of the patient. History is irredeemable. At best, we can only deal honestly with our histories. The question must be how to save the life of the patient.


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